out of Five
Running time: 112
Cliched but nonetheless enjoyable drama with a likeable central performance from Palmer and strong support from the likes of Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne.
What's it all about?
Keke Palmer plays Akeelah Anderson, a precocious 11 year old girl from South Los Angeles who has inherited her dead father's passion for words. Despite the objections from her overworked mother Tanya (Angela Bassett), Akeelah decides to enter a series of spelling contests with the aim of competing in the National Spelling Bee.
Akeelah faces several obstacles on her way to the National Bee but she receives help from several unexpected quarters, not least from troubled ex-academic Dr Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who agrees to tutor her. She also finds a friend in fellow competitor Javier (JR Villareal) and eventually finds the entire community rallying around her.
Akeelah's precociousness could have been unbearable in the hands of a less likeable actress but Keke Palmer remains engaging and sympathetic throughout. Laurence Fishburne (who also co-produced) and Angela Bassett are both excellent, although Bassett's character is frustratingly underdeveloped at times.
The supporting cast are equally good. Curtis Armstrong brings an engagingly nerdy edge to the character of Principal Welch, while JR Villareal steals every scene as the likeable, wisecracking and good-hearted Javier.
It's fair to say that the script is extremely cliched throughout and that there are no real surprises. However, these are good cliches rather than bad ones and the important thing is that they work, particularly during the various competition scenes.
Akeelah and the Bee is the first feature to be made by Starbucks Entertainment, which is something of a disturbing trend. In addition, the film veers dangerously towards sentimentality towards the end, but not quite enough to spoil it.
In short, this isn't a patch on Spellbound (the 2002 Spelling Bee documentary) but its strong performances and its skilful deployment of the finest, hand-picked cliches ensures that it remains enjoyable throughout.
Akeelah And The Bee (PG)